NOVEMBER 1, 2005 marked a major day of transition in the history of Stone Brothers Racing.
The team’s sixth and final test day of that year was also its final one with Marcos Ambrose as its driver and its first with his replacement, James Courtney.
The then-Japanese GT Championship racer had driven for the Holden Racing Team at the 2005 enduros but put pen to paper with SBR in the following weeks.
He’d been revealed as SBR’s new driver the day prior to his debut test with the Ford squad, the announcement slotted in between the Gold Coast round of the 2005 V8 Supercars Championship a week prior and the final JGTC round a handful of days later.
Motorsport News had the exclusive inside story of Courtney’s first day with SBR; MN chief Chris Lambden and photographer Dirk Klynsmith were trackside at Queensland Raceway to record the occasion as the cover story for Issue 322.
Courtney’s test was supposed to be his only laps aboard the title-winning Ambrose car, revered as the chassis to have taken the most individual race wins of any Ford in ATCC/SC history but soon to be pensioned off from race duties.
Courtney’s bruising start to 2006 meant he ended up racing the ex-Pirtek Falcon at Albert Park, Pukekohe, Barbagallo and Winton while his new car was repaired.
With BA02 now restored back to its Ambrose-era colours by the Stone Brothers and sold to a new owner during 2021, we thought we’d look back at a time when a driver other than the ‘Devil Racer’ stepped behind the wheel of SBR’s Pirtek Falcon…
ROSS Stone is already beaming long before James Courtney climbs into the #1 Falcon for his first laps of Queensland Raceway.
“It’s been a hell of a couple of weeks,” he says, “what with having to put together the new primary sponsorship deal on the car as well. But as far as the deal with James goes, it was really quite simple … and I’m sure we’ve got the right bloke. He fits in perfectly.”
Indeed. Ross defines his primary job as managing the various relationships and personalities within the team, so that everyone gets on well and thus gets on with business. People-skills.
Taking a championship-winning driver out of a team and seamlessly replacing him with another capable of matching the feat isn’t easy, but Ross may just have done it.
“The rush was so that we could get him here today. He’s off to Japan tomorrow for the final GT race of the year, so it had to be today …”
Courtney will get his initial laps in the familiar blue Falcon in between the necessities of a typical SBR test day.
On this occasion the team is testing a couple of new suspension geometry ideas, in parallel, on both cars. A fired-up championship leader Russell Ingall is completing a full day of comparison work, while Ambrose will mirror most of it. If both come up with the same conclusions, then it’s been a good day!
As a matter of interest, the team is also conducting a short test for AVESCO on a potential new fuel brew from Shell.
The reduction in ‘black smoke’ exhaust emissions achieved by the fuel brewed in China for the V8 visit was impressive enough that Shell is going to replicate it here. SBR runs a short test and all appears to be well.
James will actually cop a bit of ‘new-boy’ work today, each of his short runs utilised to bed in a series of sets of brake pads – enough for the team to complete the last two rounds of the V8 series.
It means a steady first lap, a quicker second, a quick third, then back in. Not glamorous, but nevertheless an opportunity to settle into his new home.
It’s a smooth transition.
Interestingly, James now becomes one of very few to have driven the best in Holden and Ford product in a short space of time.
While he’s not unprofessional enough to talk out of school on the comparison, there are a couple of basic observations:
“It (the Falcon) is quite different from the Holden in a number of ways – especially seating position, where the pedals are situated, the way the steering is, etc etc. It’s an interesting comparison for me – the team are also interested in what the differences are.
“You can feel a difference between Mark (Skaife)’s car and Todd (Kelly)’s car, even with the same set-up; little differences, the way the mechanicals work and so on, so between teams it’s going to be more noticeable.
“For example, these guys operate the shift-cut (the electronic cut-out between ‘flat’ gearchanges) a little differently – it’s very good, easy to use.”
The #1 car is of course set up for Ambrose, but there’s little difference between their seating requirements.
“I prefer the pedal box a little bit further away, the steering a little bit higher – apart from that, they’ve just adjusted the belts and we were off. I’m not a super-picky driver – it was good to have such a smooth transition.”
In, out. In the end, Courtney gets seven or eight three-lap bursts and he seems quite content – apart from a large blister on his left-hand.
“Still not used to that left-hand H-pattern!” he grins. “Just have to toughen up …”
At one point, the team puts in a passenger seat and James sits alongside the regular incumbent for a few laps. Interesting observations banter back and forwards.
Already, he’s comfortable with the team and his crew.
After discussing the options, the Stones have decided to leave the crew on car #1 totally unchanged – so James is communicating with Marcos’s regular engineer Paul Forgie. They’re getting on well.
By day’s end, the concensus is that James is a couple of tenths away from Marcos’ benchmark in the same car. That’s fine.
“I’m just starting to get comfortable in the car and stuff like gearchanging is starting to become automatic. It’s a good start,” Courtney sums up.
He appears at home: “The team reminds me a lot of Carlin, when I was in the UK doing F3. I got on really well with all the guys and we worked really well together.
“These guys all seem pretty laid back, while on the other hand they are obviously real racers and want to win – so it fits me well!”
Ross Stone is still beaming. There’s even a rare grin from Jimmy.
The first day at school has gone well.